Youth Substance Abuse: Why We Need to Talk About It

On a mission to increase access to quality global education through innovation, technology, and storytelling. Currently: wondering, wandering, whiteboarding…

A discussion about youth substance use doesn’t tend to draw a crowd. The parents don’t like the kids talking about drugs and alcohol. The teachers aren’t comfortable with talking about drugs and alcohol. The students don’t want to be put in uncomfortable situations — whether they are using, have used, have friends who have/had used, or even simply witnessed a classmate using.

No one wants to be the tattletale. There’s a simple, unspoken rule: student drug and alcohol use stays on the DL.

No one says it, but we all know. Pop open the bathroom doors during any period, and you’ll find someone vaping. It’s too simple to steal a puff.

At least, this is what we all think we know. Rampant youth substance abuse. Juul pod handoffs under tables and in the halls. Vaping in classroom and behind bathroom stalls. Is this true, or blown out of proportion? How can schools better support students? How can students better support students?

In my discussion with four students at Union High School, Jane, Ellie, Edith, and Brad (names were changed to maintain anonymity), I decided to find out. With this group, I hoped to explore how they perceived substance use and norms in the school community and how schools and students can come together to prevent substance use and encourage peers to pursue positive behavior changes and/or positive coping skills.

Often, we talk about youth substance use from the perspective of youth with past experimentation/use and youth who have completed treatment and are now in recovery — and it makes sense to have those individuals directly speak to their experiences. However, in the spirit of not just intervention, but prevention, I intentionally seeked out students without firsthand experience with substances.

We jumped into the conversation with an open-ended question: can you tell me something about youth perspectives on substance abuse that your teachers and administrators don’t know?

“I feel like kids don’t know the consequences of what they’re doing, and think it’s not hurting their body,” said Ellie. “They think it’s just minimal damage.”

“I think sometimes people don’t understand the depth of what they can be getting into,” said Brad. “They don’t see that is a one strike, and you’re out [suspended] kind of situation.”

“Last year, someone in my English class pulled out an e-cigarette in the classroom and just started vaping. I was like, ‘What do I do?’ And I just kind of sat there frozen. They put it away, and the bell rang, we left, and you know, I tried forgetting it,” said Edith.

What do I do? What am I getting into? What are the consequences? These are the questions that jumped out within the first couple of minutes (questions which school fails to answer). For many, including Ellie, Brad, and Edith, “not knowing” is the norm when it comes to drugs and alcohol.

We never explicitly learn about it in class (save for a teeny tiny unit in the health class that not everyone pays attention to). It definitely wasn’t a topic on the agenda during parent-teacher conferences back in middle school or elementary school. And it goes without saying that no one voluntarily brings it up. If I’m using, why would I broadcast that? If I’m not, “substances” is a taboo word. Why would I open a can of worms I know nothing about?

But not bringing it up is dangerous. It means students don’t have the full story. Because students don’t understand what exactly they’re vaping, they can’t make healthy decisions for their bodies. Because students don’t know the disciplinary policies, they don’t understand how substance use could affect their goals in and out of school. Because Edith didn’t know what to do, she couldn’t help a peer or do take action to address what she saw.

Intentionally or not, we’re blindsided.

“I think education is definitely an important part of it,” says Edith. “I don’t know exactly how this would be executed, but maybe like how they do human growth and development. Where drugs and alcohol are coupled in there starting in elementary school.”

For those of you who can’t remember 4th grade, reproductive health classes starts in late elementary school. They continue throughout middle school. Year after year, there’s a dedicated class to learning about everything related to sex and healthy relationships. It provides a space for students to ask questions that might’ve been awkward in the day-to-day, and learn about what they’re getting into. Edith poses an interesting thought: why can’t we have that same thing, but for drug and alcohol use?

After all, most people get exposed to drugs and alcohol through friends and older siblings starting in middle school or earlier. Ellie, a current freshman, remembers those precious middle school days.

“I know when I was in middle school, there’s people who use substances and it’s a big issue especially for seventh and eighth graders. I know it never was like talked about at all — like they didn’t address it whatsoever when I was in middle school,” says Ellie. “So I guess that people just thought, ‘oh, vaping is this cool thing that their friends do.’ There wasn’t enough education on the consequences of it.”

It’s not that people suddenly enter 9th grade and — BAM! — they suddenly become active substance abusers. It starts a lot earlier and it’s never too early to start talking about it. Talking about it doesn’t mean you have to use it.

Beyond expanding prevention education in elementary and middle schools, Edith also advocated for increasing drug and alcohol education at the high school level. After she expressed confusion regarding current procedures for reporting substance use, Mrs. Jones (name changed to maintain anonymity), the school’s intervention specialist, stepped in to provide background information. Afterwards, Edith exclaimed had she known this, she could’ve been a better classmate to the kid vaping in her English class. She said, “ You know, maybe even telling the student body that, you know, what the procedures [for reporting] would be helpful. Maybe other people know — but I know I didn’t.”

Other roundtable participants quickly chime in, agreeing that they’d like to see more drug and alcohol education in assemblies, pep rallies, and especially Reach Higher — a 30 minute block set aside every Wednesday for the entire school to participate in leadership and community-building activities.

It’s clear that students are calling for more outreach and educational programs around youth substance abuse — more prevention centered education. However, it doesn’t seem like schools are moving in the same direction.

At Union High School, there’s one Intervention Specialist, Mrs. Jones. Mrs. Jones’ role is to work with students who are being prevented them from being successful at school by drug and alcohol use, whether it’s their own or if they’re impacted by somebody else’s. She is part-time, and only works on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Meanwhile, in 2018, sophomores in Clark County reported on the Healthy Youth Survey that 22% had used e-cigarettes in the past 30 days. This is not to mention alcohol, marijuana, and other drug use. While Union can be considered one of the more affluent schools in the county, there is no denying that there is still a sizable low-income population. Furthermore, students regardless of socioeconomic status are still exposed to adverse childhood experiences and toxic stress, which can push students towards drugs and alcohol.

“There’s a lot of struggles for kids, and especially now with like social media and really challenging classes, I think kids nowadays are under a lot of stress,” says Brad. “I feel like some people just kind of see that [drugs and alcohol] as an escape from all that stress and pressure of society.” What Brad references as stress-inducers apply broadly to the student body, especially those who are high achieving.

“It’s incorrect to remove AP kids and honors kids from the equation,” Mrs. Jones says. “They are at risk of using it [drugs and alcohol] too.”

So where does this leave us? Of Union High School’s 2,500 student population, 20% is 250 people. How is Mrs. Jones, who only works on Tuesdays and Thursdays, supposed to identify then effectively support each person? Gaining the trust of each student requires multiple meetings and at least a few hours. Helping the student navigate school and life, then continue maintaining the relationship adds on countless more.

Given that so many students are already using, intervention takes up the majority of Mrs. Jones’ time. Gaining the trust of students. Helping them get back on track. This means that there’s no time for prevention — the assemblies, pep rallies, Reach Higher workshops, and even general educational outreach about drugs and alcohol that Edith and Brad were talking about — for the greater student community. Unfortunately, Mrs. Jones only has a certain number of hours, and if there are students already in crisis and calling out for help, that’s where she’s going to go.

It gets even better in elementary schools and middle schools. Guess how developed their youth substance use education is?

Nonexistent.

Due to recent district-level budget cuts, Intervention Specialist roles have been removed at the middle school level. Not only is there no prevention work being done before the time when many students gain their first exposure to drugs and alcohol, there’s no Mrs. Jones there for students currently using either.

Students are demanding outreach, educational programs, and policies in schools that promotes awareness of and minimizes youth substance abuse. It is clear that school districts don’t have the same priorities or don’t understand student needs, and schools are not receiving adequate support from the state legislature to fund such programming. As students continue pushing for increased school-based substance abuse prevention and intervention staff, we are taking things into our own hands.

Roundtables like this can bring together young people to talk about youth substance use. Student groups like the Clark County STASHA (Strong Teens Against Substance Hazards and Abuse) Peer Education Program are dedicated to preventing substance abuse among students through nonjudgmental, youth-to-youth advice and/or suggestions. Community coalitions like Connect Evergreen are inviting youth leaders to think about substance abuse prevention through community resilience and connections. Students are stepping up to host everything from healthy coping workshops to hosting youth panels to hosting Prevention is a Party events.

Step by step, students are reframing the narrative from “We don’t talk about that,” to “We do talk about that. Here’s my story. What’s yours?” Little by little, students who may have had no personal experience with substance use are starting to realize why they need to talk about it destigmatize it, remove judgement from it, and better support their peers.

Youth substance abuse is a problem because we don’t talk about it. This needs to change, and students are already changing. It’s time for the adults to catch up.